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Thread: Syria: the case for action

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default Syria: the case for action

    Prompted by today's debate in the House of Commons, a new (temporary) thread. First a couple of documents: 1) the public letter from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), with its assessment:http://slink.eu/yd

    The BBC's Security Correspondent, Frank Gardiner, tweeted:
    UK Govt intelligence case just published on Assad regime culpability for alleged gas attack rests more on logic than hard evidence.
    His partner, Gordon Corera, has analysed the JIC letter:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23883617

    2) The UK government's legal case:http://slink.eu/ye

    From the later document:
    If action in the [United Nations] Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.”

    The Government sets three conditions:

    1) “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”;

    2) “No practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and

    3) Force is necessary and proportionate.
    In a sharply worded commentary, the normally "tame" RUSI has rejected the case presented, it ends with:
    For the truth is that, although clever lawyers will always find a wheeze, the Syria operation has little justification in international law.
    Link:http://www.rusi.org/analysis/comment.../#.Uh8d3GR4anZ
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 08-29-2013 at 10:49 PM. Reason: Add links
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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default UK Parliament votes: no

    The UK government's parliamentary motion has been defeated in the House of Commons: 272 for and 285 against. Stunning! the actual motion:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23870810

    The BBC's correspondent remarked:
    David cameron has lost control of his foreign policy.
    David Cameron's response:
    Clear the British Parliament does not want action and I will act accordingly.
    Yesterday elsewhere I remarked it would be an odd turn in the 'Special Relationship' if the UK delayed support for the USA, as it was having a parliamentary debate. In a fast-moving exchange and reporting the BBC has noted that UK government gave no clear guarantee that UK military bases won't be used by US in any strike,
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 08-29-2013 at 10:38 PM. Reason: Add links
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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default Waiting for Washington

    As and when the USG publishes similar documents can they be added here. I am aware that various US papers have reports based on "leaks", but would prefer official explanations or are they the official statements?

    Somehow I doubt that the USA and France will launch a joint strike.
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    Council Member ganulv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by davidbfpo View Post
    The UK government's parliamentary motion has been defeated in the House of Commons: 272 for and 285 against. Stunning!
    It is so incredibly difficult for me to even imagine something like this happening with the U.S. Congress. Even the Republicans. The whole game is blame, not responsibility.
    If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain (attributed)

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    Council Member TheCurmudgeon's Avatar
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    Now you see the real legacy of Bush Presidency and Iraq. It has little to do with COIN and has everything to do with credibility. No one trusts their government is telling them the truth when it comes to foreign intelligence and everyone thinks that any military action inevitably leads to a quagmire.

    The Army might as well only train for high intensity conflicts because they will not get used until the Chinese are landing in Seattle.
    Last edited by TheCurmudgeon; 08-30-2013 at 12:55 AM.
    "I can change almost anything ... but I can't change human nature."

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by davidbfpo View Post
    As and when the USG publishes similar documents can they be added here. I am aware that various US papers have reports based on "leaks", but would prefer official explanations or are they the official statements?

    Somehow I doubt that the USA and France will launch a joint strike.
    David, I have heard three co-workers speaking about snippets they picked up via open source.

    The first told me the UN inspectors were saying the opposition employed the chemical weapons. He went on to opine that it was done to invoke a US reaction to tip the scales.

    The second (a linguist) said she read it on a Arab language website that some chief of staff for the Syrian Army had defected, and was claiming to have controlled ~600 chem warheads and other munitions that were buried under civilian areas.

    The third said we should have attacked the chemical weapons stocks two years ago when they were likely more centralized.

    These are educated, sharp people, but I am baffled as to where they are getting this info and these odd ideas. Our government has such a credibility problem that many Americans wouldn't be swayed from their position if the Presdent himself laid irrefutable evidence at their feet.

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    Council Member Dayuhan's Avatar
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    I can understand why people would be reluctant to believe any US statement. I can't understand why so many people seem willing to believe anything anybody else says, or any rumor circulating on the internet.
    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”

    H.L. Mencken

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    David, I have heard three co-workers speaking about snippets they picked up via open source.
    I will try to answer your questions, bit by bit as I locate sources. Answer is probably too grand, it will far more appropriately counter-points.

    The first told me the UN inspectors were saying the opposition employed the chemical weapons. He went on to opine that it was done to invoke a US reaction to tip the scales.
    I have heard several references to the UN diplomat and prosecutor, Carla de Ponte, expressing a view that the latest attack might have been by the rebels - only to be told to stay quiet. The BBC shows several historical reports that she has said similar before, in May 2013 such as:
    Carla del Ponte, who serves on the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said testimony from victims strongly suggested that opposition fighters had used sarin, an extremely potent chemical nerve agent - although there was "no incontrovertible proof".
    Link:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22484115

    I have noted the official Syrian stance, "It was the rebels". Which has been supported by the "usual suspects". Yes the rebels have in the past acquired CW and are reported to have used CW in attacks IIRC on military targets. If the rebels thought such an atrocity would "tip the scales" so the USA attacked, they were mistaken; after all 99% of all deaths are caused by other weapons.

    This is a early assessment of the attack:http://eaworldview.com/2013/08/syria...t-happens-now/

    The second (a linguist) said she read it on a Arab language website that some chief of staff for the Syrian Army had defected, and was claiming to have controlled ~600 chem warheads and other munitions that were buried under civilian areas.
    I have not heard of such a senior regime defector. The logic of burying CW and other munitions eludes me. Punishing those who side with the rebels or live where the rebels are is a clear regime tactic. There are persistent reports of unusual munitions being used, e.g. barrels of explosives and yesterday a napalm-like bomb:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-23892594

    The third said we should have attacked the chemical weapons stocks two years ago when they were likely more centralized.
    I read last week an Israeli new report on Syria's weapons, including CW and missiles. This referred to the CW stockpiles being moved from the east to more loyal areas, presumably a move that watchers spotted:
    Assad has moved his chemical weapons stockpiles form the desert in eastern Syria to more protected areas on Syria's coast that are ruled by his Alawite sect. These stockpiles, among the largest in the world (some 1,000 tons of chemical warfare agents) are under the complete control of Assad's regime.
    Link:http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7...421668,00.html

    Attacking CW stocks, presumably in some form of bunkers, has I guess its own problems, let alone whether a hit destroys CW. An aspect covered within:http://killerapps.foreignpolicy.com/...cruise_missile

    The New Scientist has an editorial, which covers this aspect:[QUOTE]A high-energy blast still won't incinerate all the chemicals but it will lift any intact agents high up where they can spread hundreds of kilometres. Both types of strike are likely to kill people in the vicinity.

    A study published last December shows that the bombing of Iraq's extensive chemical weapons plants early in the Gulf War in 1991 released sarin over military encampments 600 kilometres away, at doses Robert Haley of the University of Texas in Dallas says caused characteristic Gulf War illnesses and brain damage. Soldiers who were exposed were four times as likely to have symptoms as those who weren't.[QUOTE]

    Returning to who was responsible, a passage that I have not seen elsewhere, which is telling IMHO:
    ...the day of the attack was the one day that week when the wind blew from government-held central Damascus towards the rebel-held eastern suburbs.
    Link:http://www.newscientist.com/article/...al-puzzle.html
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 08-30-2013 at 11:26 AM.
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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default That 'Special Relationship' has a twist

    From A BBC Tweet:
    Ironies of history: last time a UK PM was defeated on a war motion was 1782, when MPs voted to stop fighting American war of independence.
    davidbfpo

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    Council Member davidbfpo's Avatar
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    Default The 'Special Relationship' dead or alive?

    Just what the vote last night means to the 'Special Relationship' is unclear, although HMG must be anxious, especially if an attack goes ahead. This is a side issue here, but many SWC members will know how close that military relationship is.

    My quick assessment then. For many reasons the ‘Special Relationship’ as a publicly acceptable good thing has diminished since the end of the ‘Cold War’, no doubt buttressed for many by the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The relationship is very much a Whitehall-Westminster-Cheltenham axis, it has almost no public profile. Gone are the days when tens of thousands flocked to USAF bases for air displays. Fewer Brits go on holiday to the USA, a few years ago a million a year went to Florida.

    I am not persuaded today the relationship has died. Within the axis it is strong and politically few argue we are not a good ally of the USA – on many issues, except Syria today!

    The USA has always taken a different view of the relationship, long before the ‘pivot’ to the Pacific. It will be interesting to see how the UK’s American friends, especially those who know the depth of the intelligence-military relationship, respond – in briefings, interviews and articles.

    An injured relationship in need of care is more fitting.
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    Could the Syrian strike be a practice run for the Iranian nuclear sites, or at least a demonstration to Tehran that they could be taken out?

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    The case for intervention seems strong in humanitarian terms and as a matter of realpolitik (not that rare a confluence). But the case for intervention looks weak in terms of ability to actually get it done right. Starting at the top, the president, while not at all dumb, is not some reincarnation of Bismarck. The number two (Kerry) looks like an even shakier proposition than the President. As does the NSA. The various military chiefs and intelligence chiefs may be capable enough in some narrow sense, but their record in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that they (or the institutional culture they are embedded in) cannot (or will not) do more than their "own job", which is too narrowly defined to make them the likely agents of a brilliant strategic coup here. And the broader culture is just not interested in the role of imperialist OR worldcop. Liberals who want humanitarian intervention would prefer that it be bloodless. Right wingers who want to kill them all and let Allah sort them out have no idea what they are up against in detail and what that business of killing them all may involve at home and abroad in terms of costs to THEMSELVES.
    Not only does the US lack credibility about its intentions or information, it lacks credibility about its ability to get things done right. That may be harder to fix, especially if the perception is partly correct.
    Of course it's possible that they have a brilliant plan outline and are working to fill in the details (not just in terms of military planning, but PR management, international partners etc) and given a little more time, will get it right; but really, who do you think HAS that great plan?(I woudlnt know about it if they did, but how many people here think Kerry, Rice, Hagel whatever actually have a brilliant strategic plan in their head and are feverishly laying the foundations for getting it right as we speak?)...and of course its possible that they dont even need the time; that they jumped in with all this red line, got-to-take-action stuff because they ALREADY had the foundations laid in secret and will soon show everyone how wrong the doubters were..well, how likely does that seem to anyone here?
    Pessimism may not be that irrational.

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Omarali, your pessimism is not unfounded in the least.

    The simple fact the the Congress was not recalled (and it has something like 10 days left in recess) speaks volumes. Someone with the job of advising the President to request that they come back, is either failing at that task, or doesn't know a lick about what they are doing and should be fired either way.

    Again, there is nothing limited about the Syrian problem and we need to look no further than to a few administrations ago, to be able to gauge how this plays out.

    As a mental exercise, what does the Council think Assad's countermove will be after, say, 24 Tomahawk missile strikes against command and control facilities and a few Ba'ath Party buildings?
    Last edited by jcustis; 08-30-2013 at 04:36 PM.

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    Council Member ganulv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    As a mental exercise, what does the Council think Assad's countermove will be after, say, 24 Tomahawk missile strikes against command and control facilities and a few Ba'ath Party buildings?
    I obviously don’t know whether the intelligence backs this, but maybe Hezbollah gets let off the leash? Iran would factor into that, too, of course.
    If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain (attributed)

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    I think IF the US attack is symbolic (24 tomahawks) then his response will be equally symbolic and limited.

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    Default All playing out according to schedule - part 1

    The White House announced earlier this week that an intelligence report would be released before any military action is taken. It was released today; and John Kerry gave us a little pep talk - differentiating "us" from "them".

    Kerry calls attack against Syrian civilians 'crime against humanity' (NBC News; by F. Brinley Bruton and Erin McClam, August 30, 2013):

    Secretary of State John Kerry made a forceful moral case Friday for the United States to punish Syria for using chemical weapons — painting a ghastly portrait of twitching bodies, victims foaming at the mouth and more than 400 children killed.

    He called Syrian leader Bashar Assad “a thug and a murderer” and pledged, to a country weary after more than a decade of war in the Middle East, that the American response would not involve troops on the ground and would not be open-ended. ...
    Kerry Makes Case That Syria Used Chemical Weapons (NYT; by Michael D. Shear, August 30, 2013):

    Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Friday there was “clear” and “compelling” evidence that the government of President Bashar al-Assad used poison gas against its citizens, as the Obama administration released an unclassified intelligence report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

    “Read for yourselves the evidence from thousands of sources,” Mr. Kerry said in aggressively laying out the administration’s case for strikes on Syria. “This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.”

    Mr. Kerry said that more than 1,400 people were killed in the chemical attack, including more than 400 children.

    A four-page intelligence summary released by the White House said the government had concluded with “high confidence” that the Assad government had “carried out a chemical weapons attack” outside Damascus, based on human sources as well as communications intercepts. The suggestion that the opposition might have been responsible “is highly unlikely,” the assessment said.

    Mr. Kerry said the administration had “high confidence” in the intelligence, much of which was being released to the public as he spoke. But he vowed that the government had carefully reviewed the evidence to avoid the kind of intelligence failures that preceded the Iraq war.
    John Kerry makes forceful case for U.S. military intervention in Syria (WP; by Anthony Faiola, August 30, 2013):

    Secretary of State John F. Kerry made a forceful case Friday for U.S. military intervention in Syria, saying that U.S. intelligence has information pinning responsibility for last week’s chemical weapons attack squarely on the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

    In a speech at the State Department, Kerry said U.S. intelligence has “high confidence” that the Assad government was responsible for the attack based partly on knowledge of regime officials’ conversations about the attack and the tracking of movements of regime personnel before and after the strike.

    Kerry said that for three days before the Aug. 21 attack, the Syrian government’s chemical weapons personnel “were in the area, making preparations” for the strike. He also said that “regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks” and taking other precautions. And he said U.S. intelligence knows that the rockets containing the poison gas were launched only from “regime-controlled areas.”

    The attack killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children, Kerry said.
    Thus, an explicit recitation of "...the horror, the horror ...", because that is, indeed, the Obama administration's strongest point of argument.

    Also, we now seem to have a revitalized French Connection.

    Kerry spoke after French President Francois Hollande said Friday that his country is prepared to act in Syria despite Britain’s surprise rejection of military action, potentially making a nation that turned its back on Washington during the war in Iraq the primary U.S. ally in a possible strike against Syrian forces.
    ...
    Hollande’s apparent willingness to take action in Syria stems, analysts say, from a number of variables. France is the former colonial power in Syria. The country, in military missions in Mali and Libya in recent years, has been reasserting its military might.

    In addition, because the country sat out the war in Iraq, French politicians are not carrying the same painful baggage as those in Britain, whose troops joined the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq based on false intelligence that dictator Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

    “There is no feeling here that ‘we are at it again’ or that ‘our government is lying to us,’ ” said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “We are in a better position to have public opinion favoring intervention in Syria.”
    Kerry also noted that France is our oldest ally - vive le ancien regime ! .... Oh, what a difference a decade makes ....

    The intelligence report (presumably the "1000s of sources" were redacted to protect sources and methods) is here: Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons on August 21, 2013 (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, August 30, 2013); and Syria: Damascus Areas of Influence and Areas Reportedly Affected by 21 August Chemical Attack (1 page map).

    - to be cont. -

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by omarali50 View Post
    I think IF the US attack is symbolic (24 tomahawks) then his response will be equally symbolic and limited.
    I agree it would be limited, in part because his regime is already embattled and wobbling. He can't do anything like attack Israel because he knows full well Israel will go high order in a heartbeat and just start surging airstrikes.

    I believe we can expect an immediate information operations offensive, with social media used as a vehicle to push pictures and video of the strikes as "errant" in nature, with even a few casualties (even if They are actually soldiers) paraded out as innocent victims.

    Hezbollah in Lebabon or elsewhere could stir things up, but we don't have major assets there which are at risk. Hezbollah is not getting into a Sunni country, like Bahrain, to threaten US military assets, so any Hezbollah impact is minimalized. I don't believe they could plan and resource a terrorist attack for at least 30 days.

    I worry about how the Iranian angle will play out though. It wouldn't surprise me if a limited attack spawns a limited assymetric attack (missile strike from Iran across the Gulf) that presumes the US won't go "all in". Something like that would make the Syrian situation exponentially more sticky. A kinetic situation in Syria, with Iran, and the enduring fight in AFG, will make it difficult for the US to orient on the problem set.

    That buys Assad time, and allows him to progress one more day towards stalemate.

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    Council Member ganulv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    Hezbollah in Lebabon or elsewhere could stir things up, but we don't have major assets there which are at risk. Hezbollah is not getting into a Sunni country, like Bahrain, to threaten US military assets, so any Hezbollah impact is minimalized. I don't believe they could plan and resource a terrorist attack for at least 30 days.

    I worry about how the Iranian angle will play out though. It wouldn't surprise me if a limited attack spawns a limited assymetric attack (missile strike from Iran across the Gulf) that presumes the US won't go "all in". Something like that would make the Syrian situation exponentially more sticky. A kinetic situation in Syria, with Iran, and the enduring fight in AFG, will make it difficult for the US to orient on the problem set.

    That buys Assad time, and allows him to progress one more day towards stalemate.
    Just thinking out loud, and I don’t see how it would aid Assad directly, but would Iran facilitate something targeting U.S. interests in Afghanistan?
    If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain (attributed)

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    Default All playing out according to schedule - part 2

    How will this play out ? We have some indications - leaving aside attempts to read White House tea leaves.

    Jack Goldsmith's political post (a rare bird, since Jack writes mostly legal) from yesterday outlines some issues. I've had respect for Goldsmith since he duelled it out with David Addington (Wiki; read this 2007 NYT piece on Jack, Conscience of a Conservative - which evinced moral courage on his part once he found the right path).

    British Bow Out of Syria Intervention, USG Plunging Ahead (by Jack Goldsmith, August 29, 2013):

    In a separate story, the NYT reports that “President Obama is prepared to move ahead with a limited military strike on Syria . . . even with a rejection of such action by Britain’s Parliament, an increasingly restive Congress, and lacking an endorsement from the United Nations Security Council.” And, the NYT might have added, without the support of the American people.
    The segment below on the two recent polls suggest something of a shift in the American attitudes. That as it may or may not be, I certainly concur in these snips by Goldsmith:

    The NYT says that the President “is basing his case for action both on safeguarding international standards against the use of chemical weapons and on the threat to America’s national interests posed by Syria’s use of those weapons.” These rationales are very weak – especially since the President would be violating international law to “safeguard international standards,” since our closest ally Britain withdrew from the fight, since the U.N. failed to authorize force, and since the Arab League does not support intervention.
    ...
    The President is way out on a limb, by himself. Independent of legality, unilateral military intervention in these circumstances is extraordinarily imprudent, and it is hard to fathom that it is being considered by the man who based his case for the presidency in 2008 on his commitment to domestic and international legality, and on opposition to imprudent wars.

    The administration seems to think that the costs of going forward in Syria are small because the planned strike will be “limited.” But even assuming that a limited strike does not produce terrible second- and third-order consequences in the region, it would still be self-defeating because (although it is limited) it would be contrary to international and domestic opinion and (because it is limited) it would bring few benefits in terms of punishing Assad or enhancing Obama’s credibility.
    Jack addressed "why not congressional approval":

    This is very dangerous territory for the President. Forget the Constitution for a moment. Why won’t the President pay the same respect to American democracy that David Cameron paid to British democracy? (I offered answers to this question a few days ago, but the question is much more poignant now that the British Parliament has spoken against intervention.)
    Jack's five answers were (adding numbers to them):

    1. has a very broad view of his unilateral war powers;

    2. this military action is being rushed, and formal congressional approval is not a priority in light of the President’s self-induced credibility crisis and the overwhelming military and diplomatic demands of planning the intervention;

    3. the White House doesn’t want to expend (or doesn’t have) the resources that seeking and winning congressional approval would require;

    4. it doesn’t want to suffer through the formal national debate;

    5. and it fears it might lose the debate (either outright, or with a limitation on presidential power), which would be politically and legally humiliating.
    I'd add that the White House has as much as it wants from the key congressional leadership. Here, for example, is the position of Michigan's senior senator, Levin statement on Syria consultations (Thursday, August 29, 2013)

    WASHINGTON -- Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued the following statement today following consultations with the Obama administration on the situation in Syria:

    "I have previously called for the United States to work with our friends and allies to increase the military pressure on the Assad regime by providing lethal aid to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I suggested that we should do so while UN inspectors complete their work and while we seek international support for limited, targeted strikes in response to the Assad regime’s large-scale use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people. I appreciate the administration’s continuing efforts tonight to consult with Congress about the situation in Syria, and its commitment to further consultations with Congress."
    Note that "we seek international support" (thus, the effort to bag the UK is probably going to continue); and "consult" and "consultations" do not mean formal approval - even though 80% of Americans want exactly that.

    - to be cont. -

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    We are definitely seeing the contrast between a first term President and one who has nothing to lose since he does not face re-election. If this were 2010, Things would be moving much slower.

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